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Learning from Rahila Haidary's escape

Find out about refugees, says activist, and then use your unique talents and abilities to help them

A 6-year-old girl who defied the Taliban in Afghanistan by trying to go to school with the boys, said she was able to escape to Pakistan but grew up as an asylum seeker and refugee. Rahila Haidary spoke at BYU–Hawaii on Feb. 9 telling her story about how she dedicated herself to school with no support system and is now a wife, a mother and an advocate for refugees. Now living in Australia, Haidary told students about her life as a refugee and what people can do to help refugees.

As she spoke to the students, she said since the Taliban has control once again in Afghanistan, “this is more heartbreaking now for me than any other time I’ve told my story because I knew that [Afghanistan’s situation] was getting better. But now, it’s getting worse.”

Defying the Taliban

Haidary was born in the heart of Afghanistan in a place she called her heaven. In the media, Afghanistan is often portrayed only as a war zone with muddy, dry rocks, said Haidary. “But have you ever seen my heaven?” she asked those in the audience.

She then showed pictures of lush mountains and rivers, orchards and greenery, and by contrast, also snow. She said she remembers sledding down the mountains as a child. “Everything I learned about my hometown and culture was so vibrant and colorful and cheering,” said Haidary, explaining they have intricate designs in their clothing and the music and dances they would perform at gatherings.

But there was a dark side as well, she said. “In the middle of the night, my mother would shake me and tell me to run. There was an attack on our village.”

When Haidary was 6, said said her father would come back from the city and tell her stories of children who went to school. She was captivated by his words, she said, and his descriptions encouraged her dreams to go to school as well. Haidary recounts, “My father said people who got education did good in this world, and I wanted to do that. I wanted an education.”

But when she asked why she couldn’t go to school, her dad said it was not possible for her, and her mom told her not to even think about it. “That answer,” said Haidary, “was not acceptable to me.”

One morning after her brothers went to a religious school, Haidary dressed in their clothes and followed them. “I sat in the classroom, and the boys started whispering, ‘Rahila is here!’” Then adding with a smile she said, “I was a popular girl. Everyone knew me.”

Concerned about his and his students' safety if the Taliban leaders found out, the teacher started yelling at Haidary and threw her out of the classroom, she said. “But the Taliban is everywhere,” said Haidary, and by the time she got home, her parents had already been informed.

“The Taliban called my dad in for a meeting that afternoon.”

Haidary said at just age 6, she was so confused about everyone’s reaction. “Why would her mother not talk to her?” she said she wondered. “Was what she had done really that bad?” she asked herself.

People from the Taliban told her father if they ever saw her outside their home, they would kill her, she said. “The next morning before sunrise, I had to leave my heaven behind.” Her father took her to Pakistan.

Haidary said they crossed the border with her father holding her in his arms, bent over and running as bullets flew in their direction and wild dogs chased them. That is how desperate refugees get, she said, to help their children to survive.

As an ethnic minority called a Hazar, Haidary said she did not have any form of identity or documentation because of the Afghan government's discrimination of her people. How, she asked the crowd, was she supposed to cross the border?

“The lucky ones, we are called. We make it through,” she said.

She was left with extended family members in Pakistan, she said, and her father told her, “Your mechanism of survival is education. You’ve got to learn how to protect yourself.”

Haidary said she had to go through everything imaginable to make it to where she is now. She said she was followed by strange men on her way to school. She had nobody to support her or ask how she was feeling and no way to contact her parents, she recalled.

In 2009, the rest of her family had to flee Afghanistan. Her mother and siblings joined her in Pakistan while her father went another way with some other men. For six months, they did not hear from him, she said. Haidary said being separated from their father shattered her mother. “She was just a body moving around until one day when a mobile phone in our house rang, and I picked it up,” said Haidary.

“It’s your dad,” said the voice through the line, recalled Haidary.

“You're alive? You’ve called me? I can hear you?” she said she asked, her voice cracking as she told the story 14 years later to the BYUH audience

Once her mother believed the news, the sparkle came back to her eyes, said Haidary, because she knew her husband and father of her children was alive, and she would not have to battle by herself in this cruel world.

The family was reunited in Australia after two years, said Haidary.

Using personal talents to get involved

Haidary said she has helped create a business that gives Afghan women economic support. The company, Mahdokht, is run through Instagram @mahdokht_01 because the Taliban can track IP addresses, she said. The women who participate in the business make handcrafted clothing. Initially, they thought their consumers would be mainly wealthy westerners who were interested in handmade, artisan clothing. But most of their buyers have turned out to be Hazaras who have escaped Afghanistan and the business has helped keep the Hazar culture alive, said Haidary.

When the United States withdrew its armed forces out of Afghanistan in 2021 and the Taliban regained control of the country, the United States accepted citizenship applications from Afghan people and they had to pay a $500 fee. Haidary said she filled out some applications for relatives still in Afghanistan. “They are a family of nine,” she said of one family she assisted so “it was a lot of money.” The worst part, she said, was the United States didn't respond to the applications and labeled them invalid. One way people can help, she said, is to start advocating for those applications to be looked at.

Rand Blimes, an associate professor in the Faculty of Business & Government and a long-time friend of Haidary, said she accomplishes so much because she uses her talents very effectively. “Your talents might not be the same as hers,” Blines said to the students in the crown, but he encouraged them to use their unique strengths.

In his introduction of Haidary, Blimes said, “She’ll be upset with me if I make her sound like a superhero because she will tell you she is just a regular person. And she is. But that’s what’s so great about her. She’s a regular person who does what she can to make the world a better place, which means that each of us can follow her example.”

Imagining refugee life

Haidary said she now has a beautiful family of her own. Her 2-year-old daughter, Elliana, quietly explored the conference room and played with a water bottle cap while Haidary talked to students. “I have big hopes and dreams for her,” said Haidary, adding her daughter "is the most beautiful thing that I have been gifted with.” Many refugees aren’t given the same opportunities, she said.

The day after her forum on campus, Haidary hosted a refugee simulation. Haidary gave the audience one minute to write down five items they would take with them in an emergency and then had them close their eyes while she played an audio clip.

Sirens blaring.

Guns shooting.

Bombs exploding.

Screams of pain.

“Is it a choice to stay in that situation?” she asked. No, it’s survival, she said.

“How many of you wrote down documentation as one of your five items?” she asked. “How many brought the proper clothes for the weather. How many wrote down water? A lot of refugee children die from dehydration,” she said.

In simulations Haidary has done in Australia, she said a person who acted as the border patrol officer, who was a refugee himself, played his role so well the people in the simulation cried. “If you know you are in a simulation and you start crying, what happens to those who are in the simulation for real?” she asked.

Once refugees get past the border patrol, she continued, there are forms to fill out. “What do you do if those forms aren’t in a language you speak?” she asked. The average wait time for a refugee’s forms to be approved, said Haidary, is 15 years.

“What if,” she asked, “you had a 5-year-old child when you escaped? By the time you settle in another country, the child is 20. Where did they go to school? How will they get into higher education?”

In a refugee camp there are no proper toilets, Haidary explained. She said there are no proper showers and no privacy for women. “There are high numbers of abuse and sexual assault cases,” she said.

“Why are we so quiet about the freedom of women and girls taken away in Afghanistan? Are they not human? That is a question I want to leave you with,” she said.

Those who came to the simulation said they had different expectations. Tyson Griffin, a freshman majoring in business management from Colorado, said he came because he "wanted to see their side of the story and how refugees are treated in society.” His experience as a Church missionary in England, he said, gave him many opportunities to interact with refugee families. He shared, “Even though they got in, it was really hard for them, and they’re the nicest people. They are really good people and got treated unfairly.”

Others who attended the event told of their own similar experiences. Josephine Kei, a freshman from Papua New Guinea majoring in social work, explained how she comes “from a country where I faced a lot of violence, but not war.”

Uncommon knowledge

The word “Afghanistan” comes from the word “Afghan,” the ethnicity of the Pashtuns, and the suffix “-stan,” which means land, explained Haidary. Because the Hazaras, among other minority groups, have been mistreated by the Pashtuns, Haidary explained they want to be called Hazaras, not Afghans, since that’s their first identity.

“Have you ever met Malala?” Sidney Shifflet, a political science sophomore from Colorado, asked Haidary. Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner, is a woman from Pakistan who advocated for her right to go to school and was shot by the Taliban when she was 15. Haidary said jokingly she hadn’t met Malala but that Malala should meet her. On a more serious note, she added, “A lot of girls in Afghanistan go through the same thing.” Malala’s and her stories are the ones people hear, she explained, but they are very common experiences.

Zach Perez, a senior from Florida majoring in business, said there is a lot of debate in the United States about the military being in Afghanistan. “I don’t feel like we really know what we are talking about,” he said, and asked for her opinion.

“Growing up, it was common to see the U.S. troops in the bazaar,” said Haidary, “But you didn’t connect with them.” Nobody knew why they were there, and she said she wondered that if they were there for security, why didn’t she feel secure? However, it’s much more complicated than that, she acknowledged. “Overall,” she said, “when the troops were there, things were moving forward. Since pulling out, it has all gone backwards. So which is better?”

Haidary said she still faced discrimination, even in Australia. “The Taliban claim to be Muslims,” she said, “but Muslims are the group suffering the most.” A Muslim man in Sydney, Australia, held some people hostage in a cafe, she said, which led to a lot of violence against Muslims across Australia. “I was one of the few who wore a headscarf,” she said, “and there were attacks on people like me.”

Haidary’s husband, Khaliq Karimi, said he believes one reason why all Muslims are villainized for the Taliban’s actions is the religion of Islam and the politics of the Taliban are mixed up. “Religion is religion,” he said, “and everyone can have theirs, and they should have respect for each other.”